Syllogisms on the Steppes

Is “Western Logic” Universal?

Maybe you have experienced this: You are having a somewhat philosophical conversation, and you suggest a conclusion based on what you think is universally accepted logic. You get this reply: “Logic isn’t really universal. There are other systems of logic besides the Western/Greek system.” Surprised, you ask what those systems are. But concrete details about how these alternative logics actually work are not forthcoming, so you aren’t sure where to go from there.

If you haven’t experienced this, you probably will. The idea of “non-western” or “pre-colonial” logic (or math) is increasingly used as a discussion-ender in intelligent (or pseudo-intelligent) conversation. Anything based on “logic” can be invalidated by the magical invocation of “other logics.” What they are, precisely, is rarely explicated in any useful detail.

It may help to look at where this whole idea of “non-western modes of thought” comes from.

A Marxist Infers “Non-Western” Logic

An early source of support for the theory that logic is developed socially and depends on cultural context was the work of the Marxist psychologist Alexander Luria, who in the early 1930s traveled to Uzbekistan to study illiterate herdsmen. Luria asked the Uzbek herdsmen a series of questions in the form of simple syllogisms.

As any Western schoolchild could answer these questions correctly, if the Uzbeks answered differently this, to Luria, would seem to say something significant about the way they interacted with reality. The following excerpt is a typical question and response:

Another syllogism was presented: “In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north, and there is always snow there. What color are the bears there?”

“There are different sorts of bears.”

The syllogism was repeated.

“I don't know. I've seen a black bear. I've never seen any others ... Each locality has its own animals: if it's white, they will be white; if it's yellow, they will be yellow.”

“But what kind of bears are there in Novaya Zemlya?”

“We always speak only of what we see; we don't talk about what we haven't seen.”

“But what do my words imply?" The syllogism was again repeated.

“Well, it's like this: our tsar isn't like yours, and yours isn't like ours. Your words can be answered only by someone who was there, and if a person wasn't there, he can't say anything on the basis of your words.”

“But on the basis of my words, 'in the north, where there is always snow, the bears are white,' can you gather what kind of bears there are in Novaya Zemlya?”

“If a man was sixty or eighty and had seen a white bear and had told about it, he could be believed, but I've never seen one and hence I can't say. That's my last word. Those who saw can tell, and those who didn't see can't say anything!”

An observer of this exchange might be somewhat shocked by the inability to answer the question, and might conclude, as Luria did, that primitive people in non-Western societies are incapable of syllogistic inference; that they inhabit a different mental world, to which our logical laws are alien.

But is that really true?

And Yet, The Logic Stands

Take a closer look at three statements made by the Uzbek herdsman. He says: (1) “We don’t talk about what we haven’t seen.” (2) “I’ve never seen one [a white bear] …” (3) “… and hence I can’t say.”

There is a valid syllogism there, worthy of Aristotle. Once you filter out the white noise in the conversation, the underlying logic of his argument becomes clear:

  • Major Premise: “One should not make assertions about what one has not seen.”
  • Minor Premise: “I have not seen bears in Novaya Zemlya.”
  • Conclusion: “Therefore, I should not make assertions about bears in Novaya Zemlya.”
  • The herdsman was quite capable of using syllogistic logic, after all.

So, what was the problem? It was not that Uzbek herdsmen possess some fundamentally different mode of thought from us. Other, more modest explanation have been proposed, and fit the observed evidence better. More likely it was simply that, never having received the dubious blessing of a classroom education, they were not accustomed to answering this type of question – hypothetical questions of unclear significance posed by a rather pushy foreign sociologist – and did not know how to respond. It was the nature of the logic puzzle they had trouble with, not logic itself. I suspect that if Luria had simply asked “What do my words imply about what I think is the color of bears in Novaya Zemlya?” the confusion might have been cleared up. After all, the herdsmen are absolutely right that nothing can be inferred about the actual color of any bears based merely on a stranger’s words.

Now, it is true that people of different societies think somewhat differently. It is even true that other systems of logic besides the Aristotelean system exist (Buddhist logic, for example), and they may contain insights that we in the Aristotle-influenced West could learn from. However, the underlying brains creating these systems are all human brains, living in the same world, with the same laws. In other words, there are different “systems of logic,” but each of them is merely a different systemization of the same underlying Logic of Reality.

Humility, Learning, Understanding

If this were not so, we would have no hope of meaningful communication with beings from other cultures. They would be more alien to us than any Martian or Arcturian from science fiction. But the situation is not so dire as that. Yes, cultural misunderstandings happen. And yes, in our arrogance we can fail to grasp a perspective coming from a different worldview. But this simply means we all need to be humble and work harder to understand each other. Humans from different cultures or personal backgrounds should take our differences as an invitation to learn from each other, not to throw up our hands and walk away in bafflement, or demand the other person stop talking.

So, if someone ever dismisses a conclusion with “Well, other cultures have different systems of logic,” the response should be to ask, “What, specifically, are those systems?” Once you understand different ways of thinking, you can always begin to build bridges of communication. And that is what we want in a diverse society, isn’t it? Differences in worldview should be an invitation for more conversation with the goal of mutual understanding, not an excuse to end all discussion.

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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